Cold and Snow in the Desert

Although we usually get a couple of snowfalls each winter, each time it happens we seem to be totally unprepared for it. It started snowing last night and by this morning I had received about 2″ in my backyard. The temperatures have plunged to 10 degrees with an expected high today of 24 (as opposed to our average of 59 for this week of the year).

This is puny as snowfalls go in the upper Midwest but it appears to have shut down Las Cruces: The schools are closed, NMSU and the community college are closed, City Hall is closed, White Sands Missile Range is on a delayed opening until this afternoon, our local NPR station went off the air around 7:15 this morning, and El Paso Electric is running out of electricity and has asked businesses to close both here and in El Paso.

I can understand school closings since we have no plows, no salt, and hills. (We do have a lot of sand but no delivery system to get it on the streets). The streets are slick and traffic on Roadrunner has slowed down from the usual 45 MPH to 10 MPH. White Sands Missile Range sits on the other side of the Organs and the St. Augustine pass rises up about 3500′ from the valley.  But the electrical infrastructure going kaput–that says a lot about El Paso Electric. Must be all those space heaters in operation!

The sun better come out quickly so I can generate some electricity.

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State of the Union 2011

I attended a local Organizing for America (OFA) State of the Union party last week. It was nice to be among fellow volunteers and like-thinkers. Our local OFA organizer suggested that I write a blog entry on my reactions to the speech for the state OFA blog and I’m using that post for my personal blog.

The last few years haven’t been very good for the US so rather than a speech on the current state of the Union, President Obama gave us a speech on the future state of the union. The theme is called “Winning the Future”. Frankly, I think the wordsmiths in the White House could have come up with a much better phrase than this which has the unfortunate acronym of WTF. Perhaps they should recruit the fellow who renamed the Estate tax, the Death Tax.

Tenor of the Evening

Given the recent political rancor and extreme partisanship, I expected that this address would be like prior addresses. Remember Joe Wilson’s “You Lie” outburst and Antonin Scalia’s “Not true” mouthed response to President Obama’s comments on the ruling in the Citizen’s United case.

President Obama was clearly thinking about this in his opening remarks. Both sides responded positively when he suggested that both parties have to work together–it was a great pre-emptive calming of the waters. We’ll see how long that lasts.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

Right now, the two biggest political issues are how to stimulate job growth and how to control the deficit without hurting the economy. The Stimulus act appears to have helped corporate profits in the last year but has failed to stimulate job growth. The jump in the US deficit was fueled in part by the Stimulus act. Much of this speech addresses these two issues with a different strategy of innovation through investment, educational improvements, and more efficient capital infrastructure: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world”.

Clean Energy

By and large, innovation in this area has come from universities and the national laboratories. But we still haven’t made the breakthroughs that will make clean energy price-competitive with dirty energy. (Perhaps, if we monetized the environmental costs of dirty energy, it wouldn’t be so cheap.) Private innovation comes from necessity and external incentive. How can we encourage private innovation?

Education

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has failed to improve our K-12 education. Emphasis upon improved teaching is the right approach. The Gates Foundation and Teach for America are trying to find out what distinguishes a good teacher from a bad teacher, and a good school from a bad school. How we can train our teachers to be good teachers?

Race to the Top awards good teachers and schools while NCLB penalizes bad teachers and schools. Incentives always work better than disincentives provide you don’t let people game the system.

Infrastructure

The President calls for a redoubling of infrastructure investment. Public engineers tell us that our physical infrastructure is falling apart and a big goal of stimulus spending was to improve the infrastructure. It didn’t get very far because funds were sliced and diced into small short-term projects. These were chosen not for what they would do, but for whose constituency they are in. Replacing a bridge is a lot more difficult to do than re-paving a road and is not exactly shovel-ready. Will we get what we need from this redoubling of investment?

Simplifying the Tax Code

If you thought that the Personal Income Tax Code is complicated, take a look at the Corporate Tax Code. The President calls for simplification but the process of simplification is itself a political process subject to all the lobbying and introduction of loopholes that have come to complicate the tax code in the first place. It’s a noble idea but highly unlikely. I’d rather that Congress spend it’s time on investments in innovation, education, and infrastructure.

Competent and Efficient Government Regulation

Governing is really complicated because it is a political process. Some interest wins and some interest loses in most legislation. It has to be difficult to draft enforceable laws that can’t be gamed. Once a law is enacted, it is up to the Executive branch to implement the law and a whole new political process is overlaid on it involving internal interests with different external clients. Even if regulatory authority is completely transparent, who will be the overseers of regulation? As the President says, we have the information infrastructure now that promises greater transparency.

I’m any very curious what kind of reorganization of the Executive Branch will be proposed. Let’s hope that it is not so large and inclusive as the Department of Homeland Security.

Conclusion

President Obama clearly believes the government intervention is required to get the economy moving and that it is a long-term process to which we all have to commit. He has history on his side and I sincerely hope he is right.

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Health Care Reform, Post 5: Access to Care

Is it possible that health care costs would decrease and not increase with better access to health care?

Health Care Costs are Concentrated

Costs are not equally distributed across the US population. From the Kaiser Family Foundation:

While discussions about the costs of health care often focus on the average amount spent per person, spending on health services is actually quite skewed.  About ten percent of people account for 63% of spending on health services; 21% of health spending is for only 1% of the population.  At the other end of the spectrum, the one-half of the population with the lowest health spending accounts for just over 3% of spending.

Here’s a Gini graph of this data:

Concentrated Health Care Costs

If costs were equally distributed, they would line up on the diagonal line.

Costs of Delayed Access

The sicker somebody is, the more likely that they will have much higher medicals costs. And the later a life-threatening illness is diagnosed, the more expensive it will be treat. Delayed diagnosis usually means the treatment of Stage III or IV cancers and that treatment is very expensive. People without health insurance are much more likely to be diagnosed at stages III and IV. Researchers calculated risk ratios for high stages of cancer comparing insured to uninsured patients. Their conclusion is:

If health care reform extends coverage to a large proportion of adults who are currently uninsured and provides benefits equal to or better than Medicare coverage, the proportion of patients diagnosed with late-stage cancer is likely to decrease, particularly in subpopulations with low rates of coverage.

Access to Health Care

People without monetary resources or health insurance or  forego seeing doctors:

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation

So my hypothesis is that more insurance -> earlier diagnoses of life-threating diseases -> lower health care costs.

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Heat Maps

This is cool charts #4.

A heat map (sometimes spelled as a single word) is a two dimensional chart in which areas of the chart display some sort of color scale mapped to a scale level variable. The name is probably derived from the displays on thermal imaging devices which are used to look for cold and hot areas.

The dimensions defining the axes can be almost anything. They are usually scalar since categorical values are arbitrarily ordered. That is, change the order of categories and the heat map is going to look very different with the same underlying data.

Heat maps are heavily used in business analytics, layout optimization, and capacity planning.

When the axes are longitude and latitude, the heat map is literally a map and is often overlaid on a geographic map. Here are two such examples.

New York Taxi Map

Source: New York Times

This points are the average number of pick-ups at a location per hour. Click on the link to go to the full map and move the time slider to see where’s the best place to find a cab at a particular time and day. Notice that the weekday pattern is really different from the weekend pattern as you might expect. If you hover over a point you’ll see the underlying data value for that point.

No Swearing in Utah

Source: Daniel Huffman's Cartostrophe Blog via Flowing Data

This is a heat map of the average number of tweets containing swear words by their location. The lighter the hue, the more frequent the swearing. Notice that Utah is significantly darker than Colorado and somebody must have been having a really bad day in the Oklahoma panhandle. The completely black area is the Great Salt Lake. Apparently, nobody tweets from the middle of it.

One of the major problems with a heat map is that it doesn’t so much plot a process as reflect underlying population differences. This map tries to avoid that in two ways: it uses an average of scatological tweets instead of an absolute number; and is uses isolines to define areas in which 500 tweets occur. The bigger the blob, the smaller the tweeting density.

Click on the map to see a big map of the US and read all the comments. This chart was also featured in Flowing Data. Go there to see other comments.

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The Las Cruces Palette

Las Cruces has experienced high growth in the last 20 years, much of it occurring in the area where I live (east of I-25 and south of US-70) . Some of this area was BLM land as recently as 15 years ago. Most of the new construction in this area is southwestern or Tuscan in style with stucco exteriors. Here is a montage of some the houses surrounding the Sonoma Ranch Golf Course.

Sonoma Ranch Houses

The color palette for exteriors mimics the desert that this area once was. You can find almost any color of beige here and never do adjoining houses use exactly the same tint. Still there is a sameness because clumps of houses tend to have similar tints. Here’s a very small sample of color swatches captured by little point&shoot camera while I was playing golf or walking the dogs. I’ve included two swatches from the dirt in this area. The top swatch comes from the golf course and bottom swatch from a desert park abutting the 8th hole on the golf course.

Sonoma Ranch Palette

Note the daring colors choices in the lower-left of the palette. I like the terracotta (row 4, column 6) and it really draws attention to the house which is 2 stories high and perched on a hill. Somebody was trying to make a statement with this choice. Similarly the green sticks out. I wonder if the inspiration for the green comes from local desert scrub of which cresote and mesquite trees dominate.

Variations in color (row 1, columns 2 and 3) come from textured surface on those houses. Most stucco in this area is smooth but textured stucco is also used. I prefer the look of the textured stucco because it hides all of the dips and bulges in the application. My house has it. The only drawback is that it is really scratchy if you happen to rub up against it.

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Golf Courses I have Known, Part 3

This is the third of a multi-part post on various golf courses that I have played over my 50 years of playing golf.

Follow the links to Google Maps to see what these courses look like now. Be sure to look at them in Satellite view.

Rock Island Golf Club

My Dad was transferred to Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois in 1965. The arsenal sits on Rock Island in the middle of the Mississippi River between Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island Illinois. At that point the Mississippi River flows from east to west.

The arsenal is a very old Army post which was established to protect the west in the early 19th century. It predates Davenport. It was the site of a Confederate army hospital during the Civil War and has both a Confederate cemetery and National military cemetery.

Despite containing a huge factory, most of the Island is a protected wildlife sanctuary. The island is populated by European black squirrels. A pair of squirrels was given to local famous-son David Palmer, who invented chiropractic medicine, on a visit to Europe. He didn’t know what do with them and let them loose on the island. They thrived in the protected environment.

Large stone mansions built as senior officers’ quarters during the 1840’s line the north side of the island facing the river and next to Rock Island Golf Course.

When we lived there from 1965 to 1968, Rock Island Golf Club was an exclusive private club with a long lease from the Army. Officers and high ranking Department of Army Civilians working at the Arsenal could play the course “as” members. I think that the private membership was probably under 100 families; there were less than 40 officers assigned to the arsenal, and probably less than 100 civilians qualified to play it. The clubhouse was as old as the course with limited dining hours and no bar. All the members had private lockers in which they stored their liquor.

The club was very traditional with strict dress rules and restrictions on women playing  on weekends. Women were not allowed on the course until 3 PM on Saturday and Noon on Sunday. I played with a regular foresome of women at the club and we had a standing tee time of Noon on Sunday.

The course was designed with an outward-bound 9 and an inward-bound 9. The tenth tee was as far away as you could get from the 1st tee. Going out several holes bordered on the river levee–the first hole was very narrow with the river on the left and the mansions on the right. The course was very flat with a minor elevation change. It was easy to walk. Most holes were straight but some holes on the inward 9 were dog-legs and heavily wooded.

We moved to Rock Island in the fall, just after a century-level flood on the Mississippi. Much of the outward nine which had been under water for a month was closed for repairs.

After I had finished all my course work at Grinnell College a semester early, I worked as a GS-7 at the arsenal to pay for grad school. Fortunately I had really good working hours, starting at 7:30 in the morning. (The army staggered working hours to get 5,000 civilians on and off the island with only two two-lane access roads.) Starting in the spring, I got off work at 3:30, walked the mile or so home and went out to play a 9 holes, starting in the middle of the 15th fairway next to our quarters.

I feel extremely lucky that my dad was transferred to the Arsenal. I played a lot of golf on a good golf course that was free. We had moved from blue-collar golf in suburban KC to something out of Caddy Shack.

Times have changed–the arsenal became a semi-private club in 2010 and is now open to public. If you’ve got $30 and appropriate attire you can play at what was one of the most exclusive clubs in the Quad Cities.

Broadmoor Golf Club

The Broadmoor Golf Club is at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado and sits at the base of Cheyenne Mountain. The resort has three courses: the old East course that was originally designed by Donald Ross, the newer west course which was designed by Robert Trent Jones, and the newest Mountain course which was originally designed by Ed Seay and Arnold Palmer and updated by Jack Nicklaus. Several USGA sponsored tournaments have been held at the Broadmoor and the Women’s Open will be held there this year. At an elevation of about 6400′, the Broadmoor is the highest venue for any USGA tournament.

The Broadmoor used to host the Broadmoor Invitational which was a one of the most prestigious amateur womens’ tournament in the US. I played in that invitational for about 10 years starting when I was 16.

I didn’t get my invitation because I was a well-known amateur golfer. I got my invitation because my Dad told to a fellow Army aviator stationed at Fort Carson that I was a pretty good junior golfer and that guy happened to be a member of the golf club. He secured my first invitation. The first time I attended it, I took an overnight train from Kansas City to Colorado Springs and he met me at railroad station in a 1951 Ford coupe that all the pilots used as a taxi when they flew into Fort Carson. There was a gallon of motor oil in the trunk and he told me to check the oil level on a daily basis and fill as needed. He also found me a place to stay.

I qualified in the championship flight and made it to the quarter-finals where I was beaten 3&2 by the reigning US amateur champion, Barbara McIntire. From then on I continued to get a invitation every year until I skipped it 5 years in a row.

We usually played on the east course. Playing in the mountains is a bit tricky. The course is basically on a slant but it’s so visually subtle you barely notice it and are distracted by the surrounding terrain. The rule of thumb at the Broadmoor is that everything breaks away from the Will Rogers memorial 1/3 of the way up the mountain. The memorial used to feature a carillon which chimed on the quarter hour, half hour, and tolled on the hour. The carillon had been replaced by a big speaker and it’s sound was heard all over town.

The east course was mostly parkland style, with big sculpted greens and pine roughs. There is nothing more soothing than listening to the wind blowing through the pine on a cool summer morning. Most greens are elevated and it is difficult to run a ball onto a green. Fairways are very wide, roll is minimal because it rains every afternoon at 3 in the summer.

The Invitational was moved to the South course (now known as the Mountain Course) which was being prepped for an upcoming US Women’s Open. It was just up the hill from the east course and a shuttle would get us back and forth from the parking lot at the hotel. I hated the South course. It had been cut out of scrub and poison oak and hung on the side of the mountain. The roughs were staked as lateral hazards and you were strongly discouraged from entering it to find your ball. It was the least popular course at the Broadmoor for members and guests. I suspect that the redesign by Nicklaus and the renaming was done to entice more people to play it.

I never played the west course.

The Invitational is no more. When the resort was sold by the founding owners, new management decided that since most invitees didn’t stay at the hotel, there was no sense in spending the money to hold the tournament and close the course to guests and members for a week.

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Going Solar

I am increasingly discouraged about the environment. The clean-energy movement has stalled. The global warming-deniers are everywhere, even in New Mexico which provides the best possible environment for clean energy. We have abundant sunshine and abundant wind. New Mexico has tremendous reserves of natural gas which is 50% cleaner than oil if we can only figure out how to tap it without completely destroying water sources. The economic markets under-price the true costs of global warming. Free enterprise (e.g., the capitalists) will only invest in clean and renewable energy if given government supported incentives or threated with  government-imposed regulations.

I know that the individual actions of people like me are little-bitty blips in the big picture, but it gives me a personal satisfaction to do something. So, I have gone solar–I have a solar Photo-voltaic system on my roof that generates 80% of the electricity I use in my house.

In 2009 I met Janet and Mellow Honek through a MoveOn event I hosted at my house. They had recently moved to Las Cruces from southern California and were starting Sunspot Energy, a business to install solar photovoltaic systems. The area already had a few solar system installers–a company from Albuquerque had installed a few systems in town and another local company was installing solar heated water systems. I invited the Honeks to come to the house and give me a bid. Mellow gave a very detailed presentation and left it with me to mull over. I became their first customer in Las Cruces.

I was already inclined to take the plunge and all the public incentives available softened the purchasing sting. New Mexico offers incentives to renewable energy purchasers and imposes a renewable energy requirement on electric companies. The incentive is a 10% tax credit to purchasers. Electric utilities are required to provide renewable energy certificates (RECs) to producers of clean energy from whom they buy. When a personal solar system is directly tied into the grid, any extra energy it produces flows into the grid and the owner receives a REC credit.

My electric utility is El Paso Electric (EPE) which serves west Texas and southern New Mexico. El Paso Electric is in a bit of clean-energy pickle. It has very few sources for clean energy while the state of New Mexico requires a minimum renewable energy generation percentage. It also has very expensive rates and is at full capacity. Our base rate per kWh in 2010 was 45% higher than the base rate from PNM, the largest utility in the state. EPE has announced plans to build an active solar system (mirrors track the sun) in southern new New Mexico in 2013. It the meantime, it had negotiated with the state Public Utilities Commission to provide a REC credit of .13 per kWh (now down to .12 for new customers) which is roughly .02 higher than the rate it charges to its customers.

The federal government was also offering a 30% tax credit on renewal energy improvement. (I’m not sure if it is still in effect). So, despite the relative inefficiency of current solar PV technology, expected returns would pay off an initial investment in about 15 years. My system cost just under $24,000. I received around $7200 in tax credits from the Feds and $2400 in tax credits from the state. Lots of red tape is involved in obtaining the credits and RECs but Janet did all the hard work.

My system was installed in October of 2009. I was Sunspot’s first customer. The installation took about a week and was a good learning experience for Sunspot. Sunspot has now installed over 100 systems. EPE reports over 200 systems are tied to the grid here. Here’s a Google Map for my local area (roughly 20% of the city). Each point marks a probable PV system that I can see from the zoomed-in view. The aerials for this map were taken in June of 2010.

Click the map to get details.

My system was configured to give me a zero electric bill at current rates. 17 months later, I am very pleased. I have actually made money (automatically deposited into my checking account). I earn most of my credits during spring and fall and occasionally have to pay a bill in July or August. Consumption doubles in the summer because of air-conditioning and increases slightly in the winter for lighting and air circulation from the gas furnace.

Here’s the December statement from EPE:

I have a 2 meters: a smart meter and a local meter. The smart meter provides two readings: 5496 (total consumption) and 3893 (total generated energy out). I used 326 kilowatt kWhs and but netted  273 kWhs out . I was charged for the difference of 53KWh with taxes and adjustments came to 13.28. The local meter shows that I generated 380 kWHs independent of use and received a credit of 49.40. So, I received a credit of $36.14. The adjustment of $50.22 was the payment of my credit from the previous month.

In effect, every kWh I generate is worth .1079 (to offset use) +.13 (REC) or nearly .24/kWH. It’s actually better than that during the summer because EP has a two tier pricing system in which the first 500 kWh are charged at the usual rate and the rest at a more expensive rate. I never net use enough to reach that more expensive rate.

My system has now generated more than 8000 kWh. The system is very reliable because the only moving parts are the electrons and meter dials. Occasional rains wash the dust off the panels.

My monitoring system is connected to the internet. Click here to see how it’s doing.

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